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5 common ways that leaders (unintentionally) create conflict

Many leaders create a culture of unproductive conflict without meaning to. Here are the common ways they do so and what they can do instead.

5 common ways that leaders (unintentionally) create conflict
[Photo: Antranias/Pixabay]

There are many ways that leaders influence the way that companies work—including setting the tone for company culture. It takes those at the top to create an environment that makes employees feel valued and empowered. If workers think they’re underappreciated, you’ll start to see destructive conflict. This can result in high turnover, low engagement, and a lack of workplace satisfaction.

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Of course, leaders don’t often go out of their way to create unproductive conflict, but many unintentionally do so. Here are five common ways I’ve seen leadership fall short, and some suggestions on what they can do instead.

1. Lack of organizational transparency

Employees generally want to be “in the know” as to what is happening with the company, especially behind the scenes. When changes in policies or processes rain down from above without any prior notice or explanation, this can be extremely frustrating and demeaning for the workers whose daily lives will be affected by the changes.

These days, employees expect transparency. So consider introducing a regular system of updates that can be distributed company-wide—whether that’s in the form of a weekly call or a monthly or quarterly presentation. You might also think about implementing a shared project database of some sort, which presents up-to-date changes and what’s in the works, that workers can view at their convenience.

2. Lack of employee impact

Leaders must be transparent about company changes, but that alone isn’t enough. If you announce significant changes without any system for feedback or input from employees, they might feel disempowered. If the current practices aren’t working but your employees don’t feel like they have a say in changing the system, they’ll probably feel powerless.

That’s why it’s crucial to set up a system for continuous feedback and input from employees. Then, make it clear—either through the same forum or a different communication route—that you’re considering and weighing this decision. Respond to suggestions if possible. When planning to make significant changes to company protocol, have an open, live discussion with stakeholders to get real-time feedback and responses. Not only will this collaborative structure help employees feel valued, but it’ll also create systems and policies that your workers will buy into. When you have employee buy-in, it becomes much easier to implement change.

3. Lack of employee recognition

It’s challenging to help workers feel valued when the company doesn’t have a formal system of letting them know as much. If you don’t have a system for recognizing and rewarding individuals, employees are less likely to approach their work with enthusiasm.

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Create a system for recognition that company leaders can implement regularly. Things like performance indicators and targets can be useful, and so are rewards and recognition. Remember, they don’t have to be financial. Sometimes, a simple pat on the back, a department-wide email, or an announcement at the weekly meeting recognizing them is enough. Don’t forget to record who you’re rewarding. Employees who play a behind-the-scene or supporting function, for example, aren’t always given the opportunity to be a star. However, they’re still a crucial part of your company, so you need to learn to recognize them for the work they put in.

4. Lack of trust in employees

No matter what sort of role one plays in an organization, micromanagement is plain stifling. When leaders don’t trust their employees to do their work well, on time, and to standards, they will wonder what you hired them for. And if a leader does not trust his or her employees, that leader should wonder the same. A lack of trust again leaves workers feeling devalued and disempowered to own their roles.

As a leader, you need to learn to trust your employees. If they’re not doing work to par, then work with them to determine why and collaborate on ways to change the status quo. If you discover that a particular employee is just not the right fit at the role, then make a change. There is just no reason to have employees who you cannot trust to do their jobs well autonomously.

5. Lack of employee autonomy

When you treat workers like children (such as when and where they work, how long their breaks are, how many hours they spent clocked in), you’ll probably face pushback. Your employees are not children. They are smart, capable, responsible adults—or at least they should be if you hired them. If you don’t trust them to do their work, they’ll feel controlled and devalued.

Let your workers have more flexibility in how, when, and where they work. Yes, some roles do require onsite work. Others, however, don’t, at least not all the time. The more autonomy and control workers have, the freer they will feel to be themselves. Counterintuitively, this often inspires workers to work harder, show up more, and produce better work. Instead of measuring your workers’ dedication and value by the time they clock in and out of the office, set up different measurable deliverables. As long as they meet their deliverable goals on time and at a high quality, does it really matter how and where they complete assignments?


Jeremy Pollack is the founder of Pollack Peacebuilding and an anthropologist and conflict-resolution consultant in Silicon Valley.

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